I watched the debate last night in the isolation chamber in an attempt to avoid the inherent Heisenberg problems created by Twitter. I still haven’t read any other reactions to it (save one tweet by John Hinderaker) so the following are really just first blush impressions:
* As you can tell from the image to the right, I really, really like Paul Ryan. He’s impressive and admirable. He’d make a great vice president. Might even make a great president. Certainly, if I could choose from the four guys on the ballot this year, he’d be my first choice.
* That said, I thought he had a catastrophically bad night.
* He did a couple things well: He stayed calm and unflappable in the face of a constant, belligerent assault. He was much better on foreign policy than anyone might have expected. His closing statement was powerful and genial; the last five minutes of the debate were his best.
* On nearly every other score, my impression was that Ryan got crushed. He looked and sounded like a lightweight (which, to be clear, he’s not). His tone on offense was grating and tinny. His demeanor on defense weak. He looked out of his depth at every turn. He had no grasp of the political theater inherent in a debate.
Example: In talking about Syria, Biden backed Ryan into a corner where it made him appear as though he was advocating U.S. troop deployment (which he clearly wasn’t). Biden then made him look like an opportunist by asking, What would you do differently? And the only thing Ryan could do was talk retroactively about what words Romney would have used in talking about Assad. Pressed again by Biden, Okay, but going forward, what would you do differently? Ryan had absolutely nothing to say.
That pattern was replicated all night long. The net effect was, for me, the impression that here’s a nice young man who is in no way ready for the big leagues. (I’m not saying this is the objective truth, mind you–see above. But as Clint once said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”)
* Biden was an incredibly effective hatchet-man. Think for a moment about his strategic goals for the night: No one changes their votes based on a VP debate, so what Biden wanted to do was stop the momentum from the first debate cold by bludgeoning Ryan and Romney and preventing Ryan from getting any traction which might have allowed him to stand up as the forward-looking, serious partner to the project Romney presented last week.
To my eyes, he accomplished this goal. Biden’s performance doesn’t move the polls, but it stops the emerging narrative of Romney-Ryan being on an unstoppable rise and sets the table for Obama in next week’s debate. The analogy which leapt to mind was Biden as a middle-reliever: He came in with bases loaded and no outs and then retired the side. You couldn’t ask for much more from him.
* Was Biden dishonest and unpleasant? Absolutely. Just to pick one example, look at his outrageous answer on the HHS mandate. But part of Biden’s strength is his ability to spout nonsense with perfect conviction. Consider his answer on his Catholicism and abortion. Again, it was maddeningly dishonest. But as a piece of political theater–he slowed down, cast his eyes toward the desk somberly, dropped his voice a register–it was fantastically effective.
As for Biden’s decision to constantly laugh at, mock, and interrupt Ryan, it struck me that he turned the dial up too far. Did he come across like a jerk? To Republicans, sure. And maybe even to some swing voters. But he wasn’t there to make friends. If you’re on the fence about voting for Obama after the disaster of the last four years, 90 minutes of mean Joe Biden aren’t going to push you over the line. Biden was there to stop the current narrative about Romney’s debate win and return to the mission of disqualifying Romney. To my mind, mission accomplished.
* Frankly, Biden’s over-the-top aggro is the only thing that saved Ryan from what could have been a career-ending night.
* Martha Raddatz was an utter embarrassment. I can’t tell if she was more Tim Donaghy or Earl Hebner. She was both unfair (rescuing Biden whenever he came near to danger and hounding Ryan without remorse) and stupid (turning a policy question about abortion into a “personal story” question about faith). If she ever moderates a presidential-level debate again, it’ll be a scandal.
* All of that said, I’ll be interested to go and see what the CW is.